Parents Googling children’s symptoms leading to ‘slammed’ GP services

Eight people have died due to flu-related illnesses so far this season; more than 300 admitted to hospital in last week alone

Out-of-hours doctor services are coming under pressure because parents are Googling symptoms of children’s illnesses and then treating routine colds or coughs as “potential catastrophes”, the director of a Dublin GP co-op has said.

Dr Mel Bates, medical director of the Northdoc service in north Dublin, said out-of-hours services across the State had been "slammed" in recent weeks.

He said parents were presenting to the out-of-hours services “horrified” that their child had a cold or cough “for a few hours in some cases”.

Speaking at a HSE briefing on the winter flu season on Thursday, Dr Bates said part of the problem was parents were looking up their children’s symptoms online and fearing the worst.


“The trouble with it is it tends to promote normal childhood illnesses best treated with time and paracetamol as potential catastrophes,” Dr Bates said.

“People need to understand that normal childhood illnesses last about eight days...We get lots of people horrified that their child has a cold for a few days or a cough for a few hours in some cases. The parents would come in with the same levels of anxiety as others with children who had far more serious illnesses.”

Dr Bates said another problem was the “collapse” of the same day service for patients in general practice. “People are choosing not to wait until they get an appointment with their own GP and they’re coming to out-of-hours.”

Worse than last year

HSE officials told the briefing that the winter flu season was shaping up to be worse than last year, with the current strain of influenza particularly harmful to older people.

Eight people have died due to flu-related illnesses so far this season, seven of whom were aged 65 years or older. A total of 627 people have been admitted to hospital with the flu, with more than 300 admitted in the last week alone, the HSE said.

Dr Kevin Kelleher, HSE assistant national director for public health, said the flu season had arrived four to five weeks early this year and was now heading into its "peak" before likely dropping off in early January.

“It’s a fairly big flu season at the moment, how long it will last remains to be seen,” he said.

One prevalent flu strain in the current season was Influenza A (h3), which had a “predilection for causing severe disease in the elderly,” Dr Kelleher said.

Anne O'Connor, HSE chief operations officer, said there had been a "significant increase" in emergency department attendances of some 7 per cent in the last week. This meant the emergency department trolley count was "running consistently higher" compared to figures from last year, she said.

Ms O’Connor said while there were higher attendances there were less cases where people had to be admitted to hospitals, which showed “something is working”.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is acting Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times